Oxygen therapy is a prescription treatment that delivers supplemental oxygen to a patient, usually via nasal prongs (an oxygen cannula) or a face mask. Oxygen equipment can be attached to other medical devices such as ventilators and CPAP machines. While common in hospital settings, oxygen therapy can also be used at home. A range of options is available to those who require at-home oxygen therapy, from portable machines to larger standalone units.

A number of health conditions may necessitate the use of oxygen therapy, either short-term or over an extended period of time.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) occurs when a blockage in your airway stops or interrupts your breathing while you’re asleep. The resulting lack of oxygen wakes you up for just long enough to begin breathing again, which interrupts sleep and puts stress on the heart. Those with OSA may experience excessive daytime sleepiness, loud snoring, stopped or interrupted breathing, abrupt awakenings, morning headaches, and depression or irritability.

Low blood oxygen levels are an instant consequence of obstructive sleep apnea. Oxygen therapy has been used as an alternative treatment for OSA patients who don’t adhere to continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) in order to reduce the harm caused by low blood oxygen levels during sleep. Research has proven oxygen therapy to significantly improve oxygen saturation in OSA patients.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and problems with breathing. Over two million Canadians aged 35 and above were living with diagnosed COPD in 2013, and many more are thought to be dealing with the disease undiagnosed. 

Long-term exposure to irritants like tobacco smoke is the principal cause of COPD. The condition is progressive and primarily affects those over the age of 35. COPD’s main symptoms include increasing breathlessness, a persistent chesty cough with phlegm, wheezing, and frequent chest infections. Less commonly, weight loss, tiredness, and swollen ankles can occur as a result of COPD: these symptoms typically only happen in the advanced stages of the disease. 

COPD currently has no cure, but its symptoms can be managed through various medications, lifestyle changes, and other treatment courses — including oxygen therapy. Oxygen therapy raises the amount of oxygen that enters the lungs and bloodstream. For those with low blood oxygen levels due to COPD, supplemental oxygen can alleviate breathing problems and improve exercise capacity. Long-term oxygen therapy has also been proven to increase survival in COPD patients with severely low blood oxygen levels.


Pneumonia is the inflammation of lung tissue. It is usually caused by a virus or bacterial infection and can affect one or both of the lungs. Symptoms of pneumonia can arise over the course of 24 to 48 hours, or may develop more slowly over a number of days. Common symptoms of pneumonia include a cough (which may be dry and produce phlegm), difficulty breathing, rapid heartbeat, high temperature, sweating and shivering, loss of appetite, and chest pain that worsens when coughing or breathing.

Oxygen therapy may be used to treat patients with pneumonia who have low blood oxygen levels. A 2012 study examining the efficacy of oxygen therapy as a treatment for pneumonia patients found non-invasive ventilation can reduce the risk of death in the intensive care unit and shorten the length of a patient’s ICU stay.

Pulmonary fibrosis

Pulmonary fibrosis is a condition that occurs when lung tissue becomes scarred and damaged. The compromised lung tissue is thicker and stiffer, which makes it harder for the lungs to function properly. Pulmonary fibrosis patients become increasingly short of breath as the disease progresses. Symptoms include short, shallow breathing, a persistent dry cough, fatigue, and unexplained or unintended weight loss.

Individuals with pulmonary fibrosis may be prescribed oxygen therapy to help with breathing problems. According to the Canadian Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation, oxygen therapy can reduce breathlessness and fatigue in those living with the condition. Oxygen therapy can also help individuals with pulmonary fibrosis maintain proper blood oxygen levels, which is essential for the function of the muscles, organs, and brain.

Cystic fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis is an inherited disease that causes viscous mucus to accumulate in the organs, including the lungs. This thick mucus can impede the airways and make it difficult to breathe. Cystic fibrosis also affects the pancreas, liver, sinuses, and intestines. Symptoms of classic cystic fibrosis include an inability to gain weight despite having a healthy diet, loose or oily stools, breathing problems, recurring lung or sinus infections, and wheezing. 

Oxygen therapy can be used to alleviate some of the respiratory symptoms associated with cystic fibrosis, and research has shown this treatment to help patients exercise for longer. One study found that six and twelve months into treatment, there was an improvement in regular attendance at school or work in cystic fibrosis patients receiving oxygen therapy.

A severe asthma attack

Mild and moderate asthma attacks are generally addressed with air driven nebulisers or metered dose inhalers and holding chambers. In the case of a severe or life-threatening asthma attack, oxygen therapy may be used to deliver additional air to the lungs and replenish oxygen in the blood.

There are many reasons a person might need oxygen therapy, and the treatment can be incredibly beneficial in easing the symptoms of a number of health conditions. It’s important to note that oxygen therapy can only be accessed by prescription. If you are experiencing symptoms that indicate low blood oxygen levels, consult your doctor for guidance.